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Dispatches from the present


The Spiderweb


In November, the Supreme Court heard Brackeen v. Haaland, a case challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. The Brackeens, a white couple in Texas who adopted a child from the Navajo and Cherokee nations, are asking the Court to declare the ICWA unconstitutional.11. The adoption has been permitted, so it’s not entirely clear why the Court is still considering the case. Rebecca Nagle, on the podcast This Land, demonstrated that the lawsuit is part of a broader conservative movement to pull race-conscious laws from the books, and the judges who have ruled in the Brackeens’ favor so far have reputations for supporting conservative policies.

Congress passed the ICWA in response to testimony from tribal leaders, social workers and Native children who were forcibly removed from their families and tribes by the U.S. government and religious agencies. The U.S. government had been actively driving these separations for over a century in an attempt to destroy Indigenous cultures. By the late 1970s, state-sanctioned adoption agencies had separated roughly one third of Native children from their homes.

The ICWA stipulates that courts and adoption agencies must first try to place a Native child with their family; and, if that is not possible, with a family belonging to their tribe; and, if that is not possible, with any other Native family. If these efforts fail, the child may be placed in a non-Native home. The Brackeens’ lawyers in Brackeen v. Haaland are arguing that “Native American” is a racial category, not a political status, and as such, the law violates the Equal Protection Clause. The Court’s decision is due in June. If they rule in the plaintiffs’ favor, all of federal Indian law, including rights to land, water, health care and gaming, which depend on the recognition of tribes’ status as sovereign nations, can be called into question.

Evelyn Lance Blanchard, from Laguna Pueblo and the Yaqui Tribe, is a social worker who testified before Congress in the 1970s about the prejudice the U.S. government and non-Native social workers displayed toward Indigenous families. After the law’s passage, she served as an expert witness in adoption cases across the U.S. and Canada, advocated for tribal needs in the implementation of the law, and educated people around the continent about the harms of removing children from their tribal homes. Because of these efforts, she has been called the “mother of the ICWA.”

—Molly Montgomery

Let me tell you, state workers didn’t love those Indians they were working with. There was a decision made that Indians didn’t know how to take care of their kids. Nobody ever asked them, “How did this happen? What kind of help could you use?” Today there’s the same kind of oppressive atmosphere. Back when I was fifty years old, I said to myself, and to others too, “Hey, guys, don’t despair. When I get to be 75 years old, it’s not going to be like this.” I’m 84. It’s still like this. The same old story. Kids being taken out of their homes.

Can you imagine growing up in a strange place? No one like you around. I got contacted by this young woman—she was up in the Midwest someplace, the Great Lakes area maybe, and she had been adopted as an infant through Lutheran Social Services. She was placed with a family in Canada. She grew up and left her adoptive home and didn’t know who the hell she was. I asked her to describe herself and she said, “I feel like a shell. There’s nothing inside.” To wake up in the morning, not even knowing who you are, who are your relatives, who are your people? It takes a lot to deal with that.

My father enrolled in Carlisle [Indian Industrial School]22. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the government and religious agencies placed Indigenous children in boarding schools, like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where they were forced to give up their languages and cultures. Many children suffered abuse, and more than five hundred children died. The founder of Carlisle, Richard H. Pratt, stated in 1892 that his mission was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” in 1913 because he finished with the education the Bureau offered Indian students in those days. He wanted to go on with school. But because Indians didn’t pay taxes then, he couldn’t attend public school. When he went to Carlisle, he was likely speaking adult Laguna already. He was well educated in his lifeways. He had a level of sophistication that the younger kids who were hauled off didn’t have.

His family was sheep ranchers. This one day, a while before he left for Carlisle—he was probably only eight or nine—it was time to drive a herd of sheep down to Isleta, to sell them, with his grandfather. On horseback they drove the herd down to the Rio Puerco, and his grandfather said, “We’re going to bed down here tonight because we need to get up real early in the morning. A storm is coming. We need to get across and back.” Because the arroyos flood. So they got up early, got the sheep across the arroyo and got down to Isleta, made their sales and were on their way back. But the storm had arrived sooner than his grandfather anticipated. By the time they got back to the Rio Puerco, it was rushing. They were at the edge and his grandfather said to him, “I’m going to jump in. You jump after me.” My dad said, “I watched him jump in. Then I didn’t see him.” He said, “I saw him come up way down there. I was too scared. I couldn’t do it.” His grandfather got out of the arroyo. My dad wouldn’t move. His grandfather jumped back in and came up to him again. Eventually he grabbed his reins, wrapped them around his own saddle horn and jumped. My dad said, “I was scared to death. I hit the water. I could feel it coming up like this.” [She demonstrates the water rising to his chest.] “Coming up like this.” [The water rises to his neck.] He said, “When it got to about here, I opened my mouth. And the fear came out of me.” He needed that experience to survive Carlisle.

My father had terrible times at Carlisle, I’m sure. He never talked about those hard times. Indian education was not only concerned with ridding the children of their languages, customs and tribal lifeways—it took advantage of the child’s separation, loneliness and despair. The children were forced, as they say in contemporary practice, to “stuff all this stuff.” You may not share with your buddies or your cousins because you need to tough it out. The children had to wrestle with the question, “Why am I here?” In what we know about children and removal, they end up blaming themselves. And no one was going to help them conceptualize that turmoil so that they could even begin to get a handle on it.

I’m very, very concerned about the upcoming Supreme Court decision and what impact it will have on our political status as a people. All we tried to do with the doggone law [the ICWA] is to prevent the destruction of our families and our people. When we got together to testify before Congress, we were just a bunch of little social workers there. After the ICWA was passed, nobody asked the social workers in the field, “What’s going on? What do you need?” Despite the need for regulation and assistance to develop family and children’s services on reservation and off, the law was passed without an appropriation. It wasn’t until 1980 that the Bureau was able to get together any kind of ICWA money. I think they passed out $15,000 to each tribe—nowhere near enough. To this day, that was such a doggone awful betrayal.

It was in discussions in 1980 with [former New Mexico state senator] Leonard Tsosie, from the Navajo Nation, where I really came to a better understanding of the tribal relationship, composed of clan, and blood, and band. It sets up a sort of spiderweb. You’re connected in various ways, and each strand of the web is essential because it’s a piece of the whole thing. I asked Leonard what it means in Diné lifeways to terminate parental rights. He said, “It’s as though the child is dead. That means the connection that the child represents in that relational system is inactive at least.” You can’t have that going on for the system to continue. Non-Indian people may not understand that.

In Laguna thought there’s this circularity kind of thing—there are seven epochs of existence that come around in a circle. And how I was educated was that our thrust in life or our stress in life as Laguna people, it’s as though you’re in a motion to make sure that there’s continuity. When a child is taken, it weakens the structure.

Photo credit: Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT